I find few things as silly in the world of marketing as the classic Brand Onion. The Brand Onion goes by many names — Brand DNA, Brand Architecture, Brand Wheel, Brand Key, etc. — but it’s basically a one-page synopsis of a brand, collectively word-smithed by the marketing team.
In theory, a Brand Onion is a simple tool that can be shared with anyone involved in the brand that immediately captures what the brand is all about.
In practice, the Brand Onion often says more about the marketing team than it does about the brand. They can be self-indulgent, inflexible, full of jargon, indistinguishable from others, and they often over-inflate the role of the brand in actual people’s lives.
Early in my career, I was part of a team that spent months in meetings debating the “brand essence” for our brand of frozen vegetables, armed with consumer insights and a thesaurus. By the end, we gave up and begrudgingly agreed to the words “Healthy Haven.” It was a peace treaty. Our director really liked the word “haven” for some reason. We could kinda sorta justify it, but no one reading our Brand Onion would have been able to do anything with that.
The Brand Onion rarely passes the “Factory Floor Test” — could you share it outside of the Marketing Ivory Tower without being laughed out of the room? The strongest business communication is just plain English.
I like this perspective on Brand Onions from Leo Rayman:
“Agreeing on a succinct form of words to define a brand remains a valuable exercise – not knowing what you stand for is a recipe for disaster. But the hours spent on ‘word-salad’, moving phrases in boxes around an onion, key, wheel etc. creates a dangerous illusion of control. While you’re debating the exact wording, a DTC brand has gathered a small lake of first-party data telling them exactly where to pivot to next.”
Here are a few related cartoons I’ve drawn over the years: